The Winterfell Huis Clos


Mance is behind the letter. Many of us have guessed. After my first reading of the books, that was my immediate intuition – and the most intriguing riddle of the whole saga.

Where is the proof? How? Why? We will try to answer all three questions.

But I do not claim that Mance Rayder has written the letter from his own hand. In my view, attempting to pin the name of an author is not the right approach to the elucidation of the letter. Once more, perhaps, the very notion of identity has been undermined in Martin's fiction.

As preliminary remark, it is always possible to adopt Syrio Forel's attitude, explained in his final lesson to Arya.
“The cat was an ordinary cat, no more. The others expected a fabulous beast, so that is what they saw. How large it was, they said. It was no larger than any other cat, only fat from indolence, for the Sealord fed it from his own table. What curious small ears, they said. Its ears had been chewed away in kitten fights. And it was plainly a tomcat, yet the Sealord said ‘her,’ and that is what the others saw. Are you hearing?”
Arya thought about it. “You saw what was there.”
“Just so. Opening your eyes is all that is needing. The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”
(Arya IV, AGoT)

Hence there might be nothing particularly interesting behind the appearances of the letter, and the desire to see Mance's authorship is nothing more than the expression of our biased expectations as readers. Such a position is hardly tenable, as we will see.

Here is the letter.
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want his wildling princess.
I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
Ramsay Bolton,
Trueborn Lord of Winterfell.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

My initial idea, now in ruin, was to see in the rythmic properties of the letter a reference to a song, that I could never identify. However, we are going to have a more mundane look at the riddle, after having equipped ourselves with a thorough understanding of the situation in Winterfell.

I would like to follow two principles in the elucidation.
In other words, I am tempted to rely on the following philosophy: GRRM's characters serve us lies, but the author often (always?) gives us means to detect them, however tenuous. To illustrate my point: a quick reading of the letter lets us guess that Stannis is not dead, since the proof of his demise relies on the sword in Ramsay's hands and Stannis' head is not above the walls of Winterfell. Note that such an observation does not put into question the sincerity of the letter.

The veracity of the letter makes the question of what lies behind so much more amenable to discussion.

The following question is central to our investigation: a maester and a raven were needed. Which maester and which raven?

Ultimately all language is about manipulation, not information. Or so say some of the wise people who have thought about the issue. So the letter should be primarily understood in terms of its outcomes.

As we will see, that will lead us to several layers of communication, authorships, and recipients.


  1. The Boltons' literary Achievements
  2. Material Aspects
  3. Ramsay's Words
  4. Ravencraft
  5. The Raven
  6. The Scribe
  7. The Song of Winks
  8. Friends at the Wall
  9. The Heart of the Bastard
  10. The magic Sword
  11. The Maid of Winter
  12. The Dead of Winterfell

1. The Boltons' literary Achievements

The question of literacy comes up often in ADwD. We see Wex and Davos learning their letters. The three-eye crow tells Bran that, once, written messages were not needed. Tormund and Daario mention their illiteracy, etc.

I don't see when and how the bastard of the Dreadfort would have learned to write. Indeed Rodrik Cassel says of him.
He lived with his mother until two years past, when young Domeric died and left Bolton without an heir. That was when he brought his bastard to the Dreadfort.
(Bran II, ACoK)
Ramsay's mother lived in a windmill. Roose says that Reek has been Ramsay's mentor.
No one could stand to be near him, so he slept with the pigs ... until the day that Ramsay’s mother appeared at my gates to demand that I provide a servant for my bastard, who was growing up wild and unruly. I gave her Reek.
(Reek III, ADwD)
I have seen my bastard fight. He is not entirely to blame. Reek was his tutor, the first Reek, and Reek was never trained at arms.
(Reek III, ADwD)

Roose completely neglected Ramsay's education. Consequently I hardly see how would Ramsay have learned his letters. Note that Ramsay's trueborn brother, Domeric, received a fine education. Roose says:
Domeric. A quiet boy, but most accomplished. He served four years as Lady Dustin’s page, and three in the Vale as a squire to Lord Redfort. He played the high harp, read histories, and rode like the wind.
(Reek III, ADwD)

But Domeric has been educated in Barrowton and at the Vale. Ramsay's hypothetical literacy must have been acquired after he has been admitted at the Dreadfort (about three years ago) and under the guidance of a maester. As noted above, we had Maester Uthor alive when Domeric died, no maester at the feast in honor of Karstark and Umber, and, at some point, Maester Tybald given to the Karstarks. So it's not clear that a maester has been active at the Dreadfort for the past few years. Even if there was one, learning to read, especially as an adult, requires dedication. Consider the efforts consented by Davos. There are no sign that Ramsay had such dedication.

Even though, when Ramsay is disguised as Reek, Theon thinks:
Unlikely as it seemed, Reek could read and write, and he was possessed of enough base cunning to have hidden an account of what they’d done.
(Theon V, ACoK)

So we have to accept the fact of Ramsay's literacy. In general, there no absolute need for a lord to learn his letters, since a trusted maester can act as a scribe. Let's turn to Ramsay's epistolary activity.

The first and, I will argue, only, letter of Ramsay we have heard of has been sent to Roose either at Harrenhal or at the Twins.
“And Lord Bolton has brought us further word of Winterfell,” Robb added. “Ser Rodrik was not the only good man to die. Cley Cerwyn and Leobald Tallhart were slain as well.”
“Cley Cerwyn was only a boy,” she said, saddened. “Is this true, then? All dead, and Winterfell gone?”
Bolton’s pale eyes met her own. “The ironmen burned both castle and winter town. Some of your people were taken back to the Dreadfort by my son, Ramsay.”
“Your bastard was accused of grievous crimes,” Catelyn reminded him sharply. “Of murder, rape, and worse.”
“Yes,” Roose Bolton said. “His blood is tainted, that cannot be denied. Yet he is a good fighter, as cunning as he is fearless. When the ironmen cut down Ser Rodrik, and Leobald Tallhart soon after, it fell to Ramsay to lead the battle, and he did. He swears that he shall not sheathe his sword so long as a single Greyjoy remains in the north. Perhaps such service might atone in some small measure for whatever crimes his bastard blood has led him to commit.” He shrugged. “Or not. When the war is done, His Grace must weigh and judge. By then I hope to have a trueborn son by Lady Walda.”
This is a cold man, Catelyn realized, not for the first time.
“Did Ramsay mention Theon Greyjoy?” Robb demanded. “Was he slain as well, or did he flee?”
Roose Bolton removed a ragged strip of leather from the pouch at his belt. “My son sent this with his letter.”
Ser Wendel turned his fat face away. Robin Flint and Smalljon Umber exchanged a look, and the Greatjon snorted like a bull. “Is that... skin?” said Robb.
“The skin from the little finger of Theon Greyjoy’s left hand. My son is cruel, I confess it. And yet... what is a little skin, against the lives of two young princes? You were their mother, my lady. May I offer you this... small token of revenge?”
(Catelyn VI, ASoS)

Note the piece of skin with the letter. The letter has been sent from the Dreadfort to Harrenhal, in all probability, or perhaps from Hornwood to Harrenhal (by maester Medrick). So Ramsay did not necessarily need a maester at the Dreadfort. Since we have no other material details, let's examine two other recent Bolton letters signed by Ramsay: one sent to Deepwood Motte and the other one to the Wall. As we will see, the determination of the authors of these letters is not evident.

The first letter has been sent from Barrowton after Moat Cailin had fallen (before the Reek chapter in Barrowton, since Roose knew of the fall of Deepwood Motte in this chapter).
“My lady.” The maester’s voice was anxious, as it always was when he spoke to her. “A bird from Barrowton.” He thrust the parchment at her as if he could not wait to be rid of it. It was tightly rolled and sealed with a button of hard pink wax.
Barrowton. Asha tried to recall who ruled in Barrowton. Some northern lord, no friend of mine. And that seal ... the Boltons of the Dreadfort went into battle beneath pink banners spattered with little drops of blood. It only stood to reason that they would use pink sealing wax as well.
This is poison that I hold, she thought. I ought to burn it. Instead she cracked the seal. A scrap of leather fluttered down into her lap. When she read the dry brown words, her black mood grew blacker still. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens never brought glad tidings. The last message sent to Deepwood had been from Stannis Baratheon, demanding homage. This was worse. “The northmen have taken Moat Cailin.”
“The Bastard of Bolton?” asked Qarl, beside her. “Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell, he signs himself. But there are other names as well.” Lady Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own signatures beneath his. Beside them was drawn a crude giant, the mark of some Umber.
Those were done in maester’s ink, made of soot and coal tar, but the message above was scrawled in brown in a huge, spiky hand. It spoke of the fall of Moat Cailin, of the triumphant return of the Warden of the North to his domains, of a marriage soon to be made. The first words were, “I write this letter in the blood of ironmen,” the last, “I send you each a piece of prince. Linger in my lands, and share his fate.”
Asha had believed her little brother dead. Better dead than this. The scrap of skin had fallen into her lap. She held it to the candle and watched the smoke curl up, until the last of it had been consumed and the flame was licking at her fingers.
(The Wayward Bride, ADwD)

The letter has a pink wax seal (no seal on the Winterfell letter). It is written in blood in a huge spiky hand, has various signatures (the signatures match some of the banners in Barrow Hall: four Ryswells, Lady Dustin, Umber, Lady Cerwyn, except for the banners of houses Stout, Tallhart, Slate and Manderly. However, Wyman Manderly had certainly not arrived yet when the letter was sent. House Stout and Slate are not important enough to sign the letter. No member of House Tallhart is present.)

Now the letter sent to the Wall at the same time.
“No, my lord.” Clydas thrust the parchment forward. It was tightly rolled and sealed, with a button of hard pink wax. Only the Dreadfort uses pink sealing wax. Jon ripped off his gauntlet, took the letter, cracked the seal. When he saw the signature, he forgot the battering Rattleshirt had given him.
Ramsay Bolton, Lord of the Hornwood, it read, in a huge, spiky hand. The brown ink came away in flakes when Jon brushed it with his thumb. Beneath Bolton’s signature, Lord Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own marks and seals. A cruder hand had drawn the giant of House Umber. “Might we know what it says, my lord?” asked Iron Emmett.
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. “Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to ...” His heart seemed to stop for a moment. No, that is not possible. She died in King’s Landing, with Father.
(Jon VI, ADwD)

The second letter has the Dreadfort seal, the same set of signatures (except two obvious mistakes detailed below). We don't know if the text of the second letter is written in blood. It made sense to threaten Asha by writing in the blood of ironmen, but not employ such antics to invite all northern nobility to a wedding. I tend to think that only the first letter was written in blood. Visibly, Ramsay's signatures are identical.

All indications are that both letters were sent at the same time (before it was decided that the marriage would take place at Winterfell – the decision was taken after Ramsay's return to Barrowton from his search of the Freys). The timeline is easy to establish: Roose and co arrived in Barrowton from Moat Cailin, both letters (and several additional ones to White Harbor etc) were written in Barrowton, Deepwood Motte falls, Manderly arrives in Barrowton, (I guess) Stannis writes to Karhold of his conquest of Deepwood, (I guess) Arnolf Karstark writes to Barrowton and repeat what he has learnt from Stannis,  Roose decides that the marriage would take place in Winterfell. Note that all lords of the north have received a similar letter, as Robett Glover told Davos.
Bolton has sent forth ravens, summoning all the lords of the north to Barrowton. He demands homage and hostages ... and witnesses to the wedding of Arya Stark and his bastard Ramsay Snow, by which match the Boltons mean to lay claim to Winterfell.
(Davos IV, ADwD)

(It's a bit curious that the Boltons announced the wedding to Jon, who was the last person they wanted to attend. How did they know he wouldn't come?)

The letters sent to the nobility of the north are Roose's. There is no reason to believe that the letter sent at the Wall is not.

They bore the seal of the Dreadfort. After Roose's return in the north, Ramsay was no longer castellan of the Dreadfort. All assumed responsibilities belonged to no other than Roose (only the Warden of the north can tell the ironmen of Deepwood Motte Linger in my lands…, and summon all lords to Barrowton). Manderly attributed the letter he received to Roose. Ramsay, Lady Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and the four Ryswells added their support with their signatures. Ramsay had no special status among them, even if his signature was impossible to overlook.

As it is the custom, a maester has probably penned both letters. I don't think he could have refused to write in blood, if he had been asked to. The Ryswells, Lady Dustin etc signed under their own hand. The handwriting appears identical in the signature of Ramsay and in the main text of the Deepwood Motte letter. That could mean that the maester who wrote the letter penned Ramsay's signature.

The reason for the huge spiky hand in the letter is given by Inkpots, the paymaster of the Second Sons.

    “There was a time when each new man wrote his name in his own blood, but as it happens, blood makes piss-poor ink.”

(Tyrion XII, ADwD)
Here is Tyrion's signature.
He squeezed a fat drop of blood into the inkpot, traded the dagger for a fresh quill, and scrawled, Tyrion of House Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, in a big bold hand, just below Jorah Mormont’s far more modest signature.
(Tyrion XII, ADwD)
A letter received at the Wall confirms that it is the custom to have letters penned by a maester.
Jon cracked the hardened wax, flattened the roll of parchment, read. A maester’s hand, but the king’s words.
(Jon VII, ADwD)

Two minor oddities remain. Why did Ramsay sign the Deepwood Motte letter as Lord of Winterfell? The title is claimed prematurely and wouldn't be allowed by Roose on the letter, I think. The letter sent to the Wall is signed by Lord Dustin. Just misprints?

The Deepwood Motte letter contains an odd sentence: Linger in my lands... Deepwood Motte can be understood as the land of the Glovers, or of their liege lords. But Roose is not lord paramount of the north yet. So he can't claim ownership of Deepwood Motte. However, Deepwood Motte is not a lordship, it depends on Winterfell. Therefore the lord of Winterfell can legitimately claim Deepwood Motte as his property. So the sentence Linger in my lands is compatible with the signature as Lord of Winterfell, which is premature at this point.

So it is not incoherent that Ramsay penned the Deepwood Motte letter. However, Ramsay was not allowed to come to Barrow Hall, where the letters have been written in all likehood. It must have been awkward for the lords assembled at the invitation of Barbrey Dustin to come to Ramsay and ask him to send such letters.

The crude giant signature of the Umbers will be examined elsewhere.

There is another sign that Ramsay is literate. Indeed, when Theon is sent to negotiate the surrender of the ironmen, we read.
One of them picked it up and turned it over in his hands, picking at the pink wax that sealed it. After a moment he said, “Parchment. What good is that? It’s cheese we need, and meat.”
He gestured at the parchment. “Break the seal. Read the words. That is a safe conduct, written in Lord Ramsay’s own hand. Give up your swords and come with me, and his lordship will feed you and give you leave to march unmolested to the Stony Shore and find a ship for home. Elsewise you die.”
(Reek II, ADwD)
And a moment later:
“If we yield, we walk away?” said the one-armed man. “Is that what it says on this here writing?” He nudged the roll of parchment, its wax seal still unbroken.
“Read it for yourself,” he answered, though he was almost certain that none of them could read. “Lord Ramsay treats his captives honorably so long as they keep faith with him.”
(Reek II, ADwD)
After the surrender, the ironmen are executed and put on stakes. Here is one of them.
Another had a parchment shoved between its teeth, its wax seal still unbroken.
(Reek II, ADwD)

I wonder if Ramsay did not play on the ironmen the same cruel trick that he would later do with the maesters (see above): perhaps the parchment was an empty promise, not even written from his hand, perhaps even blank.

Beside this perverse game, we see no sign of Ramsay's interest in the maesters. Recall that he had Maester Luwin murdered after the Winterfell battle, before sparing much of the Winterfell household. He does not have a maester with him, apparently, at the Dreadfort. During the Winterfell wedding, the maesters always attend Roose. There is no sign that Ramsay has any authority over them.

2. Material Aspects

Here is what we know about the aspect of the letter.
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. He cracked the seal, flattened the parchment, and read.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

We don't know whether blood was used as ink but Jon Snow doesn't notice it. So I would assume that regular ink has been used.

Two things are wrong. First there is no proper seal, despite the use of pink wax. We should assume that whoever has pink wax at his disposal has the Dreadfort seal as well. Indeed, Jon Snow reflects as he receives the wedding announcement.
Only the Dreadfort uses pink sealing wax.
(Jon VI, ADwD)

I have no idea how difficult it is to color wax. Does that need the skill of a maester? A simple explanation for the lack of seal is that the letter has been opened and resealed before being given to Jon Snow. Has it been opened before being sent, or at reception? The hard pink wax would seem to indicate that the letter has not just been resealed. Moreover, the whole purpose of sealing in wax is that it is not easy to open and reseal, if it can be done at all.

Previous letters received at the Wall had an intact seal.
Jon was washing the roast down with a sip of mulled wine when Clydas appeared at his elbow. “A bird,” he announced, and slipped a parchment into Jon’s hand. The note was sealed with a dot of hard black wax. Eastwatch, Jon knew, even before he broke the seal.
(Jon X, ADwD)
Clydas had come and gone, Jon noted as he was hanging his cloak on the peg beside the door. A letter had been left on the table in his solar. Eastwatch or the Shadow Tower, he assumed at first glance. But the wax was gold, not black. The seal showed a stag’s head within a flaming heart. Stannis. Jon cracked the hardened wax, flattened the roll of parchment, read. A maester’s hand, but the king’s words.
(Jon VII, ADwD)
Here is how sealing a letter is done.
Jon rattled the letter. “I suppose so.” He sighed, then took up a quill and scrawled a signature
across the bottom of the letter. “Get the sealing wax.” Sam heated a stick of black wax over a candle and dribbled some onto the parchment, then watched as Jon pressed the Lord Commander’s seal down firmly on the puddle. “Take this to Maester Aemon when you leave,” he commanded, “and tell him to dispatch a bird to King’s Landing.”
(Samwell I, AFfC)

However, a seal is not always impressed on the wax. We just a saw a letter sealed with a dot of hard black wax. So we have sometimes letter sealed with a blob or a button of wax, without further mark.
Death had come to Dorne on raven wings, writ small and sealed with a blob of hard red wax.
(The Captain of Guards, AFfC)

So I am not certain the smear of hard pink wax is a serious anomaly. That there is merely a smear might seem the sign of neglect. But more than a dot?

The second anomaly is that the color of the wax might be wrong. Ramsay writes as Lord of Winterfell, not as Lord or castellan of the Dreadfort. Winterfell uses white wax as we see when Jon Snow receives a letter from Robb Stark.
Jon’s finger traced the outline of the direwolf in the white wax of the broken seal.
(Jon III, AGoT)

I believe any competent maester would have objected to the use of pink wax. Who knows under which conditions the letter has been written? Perhaps no white wax was available then. Perhaps the sender did not care about such subtleties, and had not qualms contradicting the signature of the letter by the seal of the letter.

If Ramsay is Lord of the Dreadfort because Roose is dead, then why not mention the Dreadfort?

Another material detail seems inconsistent. When Ramsay wrote to the Twins to announce his victory at Winterfell "over the ironmen", he included a piece of the skin of Theon Greyjoy.
Roose Bolton removed a ragged strip of leather from the pouch at his belt. “My son sent this with his letter.”
Ser Wendel turned his fat face away. Robin Flint and Smalljon Umber exchanged a look, and the Greatjon snorted like a bull. “Is that... skin?” said Robb.
“The skin from the little finger of Theon Greyjoy’s left hand. My son is cruel, I confess it. And yet... what is a little skin, against the lives of two young princes? You were their mother, my lady. May I offer you this... small token of revenge?”
(Catelyn VI, ASoS)

I suppose it would have been easy to add a piece of the skin of Mance and the washerwomen. But none is included, unless the letter has been opened and the piece of skin kept away from Jon Snow. Why keep away a piece of skin? I suppose Melisandre could use is for glamor.

The letter sent to Deepwood Motte confirms the Bolton tradition to display the skin of defeated enemies.

An examination of the signature of the letter is worthwile. Of course, only Ramsay signed. The letters from Barrow Hall were signed by the available northern nobility : Dustin, Cerwyn, Umber, Bolton, Ryswell. Hence the Winterfell letter was written without their consent. Obviously, the message would have had more weight if it had carried their mark, especially Roose's. Indeed Roose Bolton, as Warden of the north, carries the authority conferred by the Iron Throne.

At the Wall, the arrival of the raven seems to have been the subject of a vision of Melisandre.
“All your questions shall be answered. Look to the skies, Lord Snow. And when you have your answers, send to me. Winter is almost upon us now. I am your only hope.”
(Jon XIII, ADwD)
Furthermore, it's worth noting Clydas' dismay at the arrival of the letter.
He broke off when Mully poked his nose inside the door, grim-faced, to announce that Clydas had brought a letter.
“Tell him to leave it with you. I will read it later.”
“As you say, m’lord, only ... Clydas don’t look his proper self ... he’s more white than pink, if you get my meaning ... and he’s shaking.”
“Dark wings, dark words,” muttered Tormund. “Isn’t that what you kneelers say?”
“We say,
Bleed a cold but feast a fever too,” Jon told him. “We say, Never drink with Dornishmen when the moon is full. We say a lot of things.”
Mully added his two groats. “My old grandmother always used to say,
Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.
“I think that’s sufficient wisdom for the moment,” said Jon Snow. “Show Clydas in if you would be so good.”
Mully had not been wrong; the old steward was trembling, his face as pale as the snows outside. “I am being foolish, Lord Commander, but ... this letter frightens me. See here?”
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. He cracked the seal, flattened the parchment, and read.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

But Clydas is always described as pink-eyed in his previous appearances. Could Clydas be simply frightened by the external appearance of the letter? There is certainly a fear among the men of the Watch to be engulfed in the turmoil of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon has taken the risk of angering House Bolton by hosting Stannis. Already from the outside, the letter seems to be a declaration of hostility from House Bolton.

The scene is ambiguous and Clydas' paleness could be attributed to a fever. Mully came to scene grim-face, perhaps because he saw the outlook of the letter as well. It's not clear whether it's possible that men from the Watch have opened the letter. It seems that Clydas had respect for Jon Snow and wouldn't conspire against the Lord Commander, at least at this point. He even seemed moved by Jon's passion for saving the wildlings, to the point of letting slip a mark of affection when Jon articulated his egalitarian vision of humanity.
Clydas blinked his dim pink eyes. “I will do my best, Jon. My lord, I mean.”
(Jon XI, ADwD)

So I find unlikely that Clydas opened the letter, showed it to some of his brothers and closed again the seal. Perhaps Clydas has been threatened, which explain his state of shock. It's interesting that Mully says he’s more white than pink, if you get my meaning. What that could mean, beside the reference to Clydas' pink eyes?

3. Ramsay's Words

I find little in the letter that is dissonant with what we know of Ramsay. Even the use of the word bastard is not unlikely. It is true that Ramsay hates being recalled the condition of his birth. But he is not shy of using the word casually. Ramsay says of his horse:
“Oh, leave him be,” said Ramsay. “Just see to Blood. I rode the bastard hard.”
(Reek III, ADwD)
He even used it to designate himself by the dreaded word, when he was "Reek" in Winterfell.
“Haven’t fucked no one since they took me, m’lord. Heke’s me true name. I was in service to the Bastard o’ the Dreadfort till the Starks give him an arrow in the back for a wedding gift.”
(Bran, ACoK)

The tone of the letter is consistent with Ramsay's verbal style coming from his anger. Consider for instance, the threats he issued to Barbrey.
Ramsay’s face darkened. “If I cut off her teats and feed them to my girls, will she abide me then? Will she abide me if I strip off her skin to make myself a pair of boots?”
(Reek III, ADwD)
“All she does is spit on me. The day will come when I’ll set her precious wooden town afire. Let her spit on that, see if it puts out the flames.”
(Reek III, ADwD)
We have also some threats in Winterfell.
“When we find the man who did this,” Lord Ramsay promised, “I will flay the skin off him, cook it crisp as crackling, and make him eat it, every bite.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
“What man?” Ramsay demanded. “Give me his name. Point him out to me, boy, and I will make you a cloak of his skin.”
(Theon, ADwD)

The threats are direct and graphic, well in line with what we see in the letter. Theon recalls often how dangerous Ramsay is when angered. We have no certain instances of Ramsay's writing style. But Ramsay is capable of adapting his language according to the circumstances, as he did when he adopted the Reek persona, and again when he tried to please other northern lords in Barrowton. So either the letter imitated well Ramsay's speech, or Ramsay proved unable or unwilling to write the standard prose for written communication within the aristocracy of the Seven Kingdoms. Here is Roose's advice to Ramsay.
“You’ll wed at Winterfell. I shall inform the lords that we march in three days and invite them to accompany us.”
“You are the Warden of the North. Command them.”
“An invitation will accomplish the same thing. Power tastes best when sweetened by courtesy. You had best learn that if you ever hope to rule.”
(Reek III, ADwD)
This is a sign that Roose played no role in the writing of the letter.

Let's examine the discourse of the letter, still assuming that it is truly Ramsay's message. First, Ramsay still fears Stannis, or at least his legacy. Otherwise he wouldn't demand the family of the king. That doesn't mean that he doesn't believe Stannis to be dead. It just implies that Shireen could claim the Iron Throne as Stannis' heir. Given that Stannis' army is probably non existent after the battle, Stannis' threat to Ramsay does not reside in his own military forces. It can only come from the support that Stannis has in the north or on the financial support of Braavos. But Stannis' support in the north is weak, and relies on Stannis' victories against the ironmen and at the Wall and on the hate inspired by House Bolton. The victories might have been forgotten after the defeat at the gates of Winterfell. The hatred for the Boltons probably persists among the Starks' former bannermen, but it is unlikely that the northmen will look at Stannis to lead them against House Bolton if his host has been smashed.

The most likely explanation seems to me that Ramsay has heard about the loan from the Iron Bank, and that an army of sellsword might come back from across the Narrow Sea. But I don't see how could Ramsay know such a thing. Only Theon has witnessed the conclusion of the deal. Only Massey seems informed, it seems to me. Perhaps the word has spread a bit among Stannis' men. There was no recommendation from Stannis to keep the deal secret.

It's likely that Ramsay questioned prisoners after the battle. He might have heard about "Arya"'s escape to the Wall that way, unless the washerwomen and Mance revealed, under torture, that they intended to send "Arya" to Jon Snow.
“You have a half-brother,” Rowan said. “Lord Crow, he is.” “Jon Snow?”
“We’ll take you to him, but you must come at once.”
(Theon, ADwD)

It would follow then that Ramsay has heard that the Braavosi banker has gone to the Wall with Massey. In that case, the letter would contain a demand from Ramsay for the delivery of Tycho Nestoris and Massey. But there is no such demand. So perhaps Ramsay just received a hint that an envoy from Braavos came to meet Stannis.

So there is no clear explanation of why Ramsay still fears Stannis.

The second indication that Ramsay fears Stannis resides in the attempt to discredit the king and Jon Snow by the accusation of having falsely burned Mance. There is no need to discredit a defeated foe.

Ramsay demands the return of "Arya" and "Reek". At best, not recovering Arya is a big loss of face for the Lord of Winterfell. It undermines his legitimacy, and it prevents him from conceiving, or at least, if Jeyne is already pregnant, raising a "legitimate" Stark son. So Ramsay is at the mercy of a rebellion against his power sooner or later.

The wording of the need to recover both "Arya" and "Reek" fits well the frustration of a sadist who has lost the power of persecution he relished. However, Theon, a heir of the Iron Islands, is a politically valuable prisoner, an potential hostage, worthy of a good ransom for his life or his death, as Roose once remarked.
“He is Balon Greyjoy’s only living son,” Lord Bolton said softly, as if they had forgotten, “and now rightful King of the Iron Islands. A captive king has great value as a hostage.”
“Hostage?” The word raised Catelyn’s hackles. Hostages were oft exchanged. “Lord Bolton, I hope you are not suggesting that we free the man who killed my sons.”
“Whoever wins the Seastone Chair will want Theon Greyjoy dead,” Bolton pointed out. “Even in chains, he has a better claim than any of his uncles. Hold him, I say, and demand concessions from the ironborn as the price of his execution.”
(Catelyn VI, ASoS)

So the request for Theon is reasonable. The use of the name "Reek" is not. If Ramsay has been imitated in the letter, this does not seem wise on the part of the forger. In any case, it is not unlikely that the use of the term is due to Ramsay's anger and his incapacity to acknowledge the personhood of Theon, that he had systematically destroyed.

Now we come to Ramsay's most curious demands: the wildling princess and the little prince.

There is hardly any reason for Ramsay to make such demand. Indeed, Val and Mance's son are a priori just wildlings. Except perhaps to blackmail Mance, and obtain something that Mance had resisted giving. Indeed, Val is problably valuable to him, and the little prince is supposed to be Mance's son. The other possibility is that Ramsay came to understand, like Stannis did, and Jon Snow didn't, the status of Val, and of Dalla's son.

The idea that Val and Craster's son would come to Winterfell has been prefigured already. Indeed, Stannis intended to give Winterfell to Val's husband (a role for whom Stannis considered Jon Snow, Massey and Horpe). And there might be some good reason for that that we have yet to understand. One might understand that Bran has been exchanged for Craster's son at the Black Gate, under the Nightfort. Bran was then King in the north. If Craster's son took Bran's place in the world south of the Wall, why not the title of King in the North?

Of course, I hardly see how Ramsay could make such speculations, even if we have noted the disturbing resemblances betwen Craster and Ramsay.

The presence of heads above the walls of Winterfell is not quite Ramsay motus operandi. In Moat Cailin, the defeated ironmen were flayed and put on posts along the Kingsroad. Ramsay brought up the flaying tradition over and over, to the point of carrying a flaying knife assorted to his sword at all times. The heads above the walls of Winterfell seemed more typical of Roose Bolton. We never saw Roose flay anyone in the story. When Roose conquered Harrenhal, he did display the heads of the people he had executed.

Jon Snow is dangerous for Ramsay for several reasons. As Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, he is not the Dreadfort liege man. Secondly, as Arya's brother he can denounce the imposture. Thirdly, as the behaviour of Alys Karstark shows, the north might turn to Jon Snow as the last son of Eddard Stark. However, if House Bolton is as politically dominant as it seems to be, this might not be a real danger.

But, it justifies Ramsay's blackmail, which seems to intimate to Jon Snow to keep quiet about the bride in exchange for Ramsay's silence about the false execution of Mance.

Does this explain the obsessively antagonistic tone employed in the letter? I suspect there is something else.

There is a strong possibility that Robb's will has been found by the Freys, who might have brought it up in their conflict with Ramsay for the inheritance of the Dreadfort. The will seems to have legitimized Jon Snow and named him the heir of Robb for the lordship of Winterfell, and the kingship of the north.

If that reached Ramsay's ear, that would make Jon Snow appear to be Ramsay's rival for the lordship of Winterfell (let's leave aside the kingship of the north). Robb's will contains the legitimation of Jon. So the letter is a way to deny Jon the legitimation and thus deny him the lordship, while Ramsay claims his own right as a legitimized bastard.

With the use of the word Trueborn Ramsay almost becomes a caricature of himself. All the north knows about his bastardy and legitimation.

To conclude this part of the investigation: except for a few oddities (the use of the term Reek, the demand for Val and Craster's son, the lack of flayed skin) the letter is compatible with Ramsay's interests and known demeanor.

We have reached the first layer of understanding of the letter. We could stop here. But there is much more.

4. Ravencraft

The involvement of the three maesters in the writing and the sending of the letter is not evident.

Let's assume that Roose is absent (that is dead, or on his way to the Dreadfort) when the letter is sent. How can Ramsay access the seal of the Dreadfort?

It seems that Roose Bolton had nothing to do with the letter, despite the fact that the three maesters in Winterfell answered to him personally. So how could Ramsay have convinced any of the maesters to serve him? Medrick and Rhodry, having served House Hornwood and House Cerwyn, who suffered so much from Ramsay, are unlikely to have done Ramsay any favor. Maester Henly seems to be missing on the morning of the escape. Perhaps Roose returned to the Dreadfort, and left a maester to serve Ramsay in Winterfell. Alternatively, Roose might be dead, an alternative I find unlikely for a variety of reasons and that would not guarantee that Ramsay is Lord of the Dreadfort, since Walda carries Roose's child, a pretender to the lordship of the Dreadfort.

The maesters in Winterfell are not bound to serve Ramsay, and are unlikely to cooperate willingly with Ramsay. None of them has been assigned to Winterfell. Consider how easy it would be for them to betray Ramsay: only the maester knows the destination of the raven he is sending. So Ramsay could envisage only a well trusted maester to send his letter.

The sender could conceivably be Maester Tybald. The last time we heard about him, he had confessed the Karstark betrayal to Stannis.
The king leaned back in his chair. "Get him out of here," he commanded. "Leave the ravens." A vein was throbbing in his neck. "Confine this grey wretch to one of the huts until I decide what is to be done with him."
(Theon, TWoW)

To send the letter for Ramsay, Tybald would need to survive the battle, and to be brought to Winterfell to send a raven from there. It is possible, but not very likely. In any case, Tybald is the maester of the Dreadfort and answers to Roose.

So we are back to the problem of Roose's whereabouts. I choose to adopt the following understanding. Since Ramsay did not mention any authority over the Dreadfort in the signature, he didn't inherit the authority of his father. In particular, he is not in position to command the maesters. In particular, Roose had authority over the northern nobility and their maesters in quality of Warden of the north, a title that can not be inherited in any case. In other words, the maesters in Winterfell are not bound to serve Ramsay in any circumstance I can imagine.

Everything lets us believe that Roose has not given his leave for the letter, and, consequently, that Ramsay had no maester at hand that would serve him.

However, Ramsay might have a specialist in ravencraft at his disposal, a man he has come to trust.

Indeed, Whoresbane has been with Ramsay for monthes, at the Dreadfort, in Moat Cailin. He was with Ramsay until the moment of Roose's return. We saw Hother Umber at the feast at the Dreadfort, and again at Moat Cailin, still in the company of Ramsay. After the fall of Moat Cailin, Hother seems to have joined Roose's entourage. But he seems to have been the only northern lord to have suffered Ramsay at any point. Recall how isolated was Ramsay in Barrowton. We never see Ramsay entertain any cordial relation in Winterfell with any character of importance.

Roose tells Theon that Ramsay should fear Whoresbane – and implicitly that Ramsay doesn't.
“He should be. Fear is what keeps a man alive in this world of treachery and deceit. Even here in Barrowton the crows are circling, waiting to feast upon our flesh. The Cerwyns and the Tallharts are not to be relied on, my fat friend Lord Wyman plots betrayal, and Whoresbane ... the Umbers may seem simple, but they are not without a certain low cunning. Ramsay should fear them all, as I do. The next time you see him, tell him that.”
(Reek III, ADwD)

Of course, neither the Cerwyns, nor the Tallharts, nor Manderly has developped any close connection to Ramsay. But Whoresbane has. In Winterfell, Whoresbane remains discreet. He is part of Roose's war councils, but is not well trusted by Roose: he was not part of the small council in Ned's Stark solar. Barbrey Dustin reminded us twice that Hother Umber has attended the wedding only because of the captivity of the Greatjon at the Twins.

Let's turn now to Whoresbane's competence in ravencraft. Whoresbane appears to have been sent to Oldtown as a gifted boy – but gifted in what? Then he was involved in a scandal and had to return home, where he apparently spent the rest of his life.

We can assume that Whoresbane was at least as gifted as Pate, who was unable to forge any chain. Nevertheless, Pate is skilled in ravenry.
It would not have been the first time that good fortune had turned sour on Pate. He had once counted himself lucky to be chosen to help old Archmaester Walgrave with the ravens, never dreaming that before long he would also be fetching the man’s meals, sweeping out his chambers, and dressing him every morning.
(Prologue, AFfC)

So it's reasonable to assume that Whoresbane could send a raven. Whether he assumed the same role as Pate at the Citadel is an interesting question. For the moment, let's just note that Whoresbane might very well be able to send a raven with a message, which seems to be a task than even the worst students at the Citadel can undertake.

Whoresbane was not involved in the coming battle with Stannis. While Manderly and the Freys were sent out, the Umber men remained in Winterfell, keeping a low profile.

Indeed, we were told early in the story.
“He informs me that Umber will not fight Umber, for any cause.”
(Jon IV, ADwD)

The notion that Whoresbane would be the one who would send for the Night's Watch had been powerfully prefigured, with the occurence of a remarkable horn.
The music grew wilder, the drummers joined in, and Hother Umber brought forth a huge curved warhorn banded in silver. When the singer reached the part in “The Night That Ended” where the Night's Watch rode forth to meet the Others in the Battle for the Dawn, he blew a blast that set all the dogs to barking.
(Bran III, ACoK)
So we conclude that Ramsay might have had a maester at hand in Whoresbane. But what about a raven?

5. The Raven

We had already an in-depth discussion about the ravens of Winterfell.

There seems to be an overabundance of ravens at Winterfell on the day of the wedding.
Above their heads the trees were full of ravens, their feathers fluffed as they hunched on bare brown branches, staring down at the pageantry below. Maester Luwin’s birds. Luwin was dead, and his maester’s tower had been put to the torch, yet the ravens lingered. This is their home. Theon wondered what that would be like, to have a home.
Then the mists parted, like the curtain opening at a mummer show to reveal some new tableau. The heart tree appeared in front of them, its bony limbs spread wide. Fallen leaves lay about the wide white trunk in drifts of red and brown. The ravens were the thickest here, muttering to one another in the murderers’ secret tongue. Ramsay Bolton stood beneath them, clad in high boots of soft grey leather and a black velvet doublet slashed with pink silk and glittering with garnet teardrops. A smile danced across his face. “Who comes?” His lips were moist, his neck red above his collar. “Who comes before the god?”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

There seems to be hundreds or thousands of ravens, which seems plausible for the Winterfell rookery. Theon says: This is their home. It seems to me that the home of a raven is the castle where he has been trained to return.

As we have discussed already, the ravens seems to have vanished. And there is no mention of them in the godswood later in the story. They seem to have been eaten. Indeed, the men in the Great Hall complain about the lack of meat in the meals.

The three maesters with Roose are in charge of tending ravens. Since the maester's turret is in ruin, there is no mean to manage hundreds or even thousands of birds. How does a maester determine the assigned destination of a bird in the wild among hundreds of other birds?

We have no description of the logistics used by Henly, Medrick and Rhodry. Most likely the three maesters have kept in a few cages the ravens prepared for the most essential destinations (I suppose the Dreadfort, Barrowton, King's Landing, the Twins, Karhold, but probably not Castle Black), but there is no mention of it.
She might have said more, but then she saw the maesters. Three of them had entered together by the lord’s door behind the dais—one tall, one plump, one very young, but in their robes and chains they were three grey peas from a black pod. Before the war, Medrick had served Lord Hornwood, Rhodry Lord Cerwyn, and young Henly Lord Slate. Roose Bolton had brought them all to Winterfell to take charge of Luwin’s ravens, so messages might be sent and received from here again.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

To summarize: the maesters came to take care of Luwin's ravens. Luwin's ravens have taken residence in the godswood. They vanish from the godswood in the course of the story. But at one point, ravens are again mentioned in Winterfell.
Theon made his way deeper into the ruined parts of the castle. As he picked through the shattered stone that had once been Maester Luwin’s turret, ravens looked down from the gash in the wall above, muttering to one another. From time to time one would let out a raucous scream.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)

We are still a long time before the day of the escape at this point. Perhaps some ravens have taken refuge in the turret, before they were to be exterminated. Later when Theon would wander again in the castle. There is no mention of quorks, screams etc.
In the godswood the snow was still dissolving as it touched the earth. Steam rose off the hot pools, fragrant with the smell of moss and mud and decay. A warm fog hung in the air, turning the trees into sentinels, tall soldiers shrouded in cloaks of gloom. During daylight hours, the steamy wood was often full of northmen come to pray to the old gods, but at this hour Theon Greyjoy found he had it all to himself.
And in the heart of the wood the weirwood waited with its knowing red eyes. Theon stopped by the edge of the pool and bowed his head before its carved red face. Even here he could hear the drumming, boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM. Like distant thunder, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The night was windless, the snow drifting straight down out of a cold black sky, yet the leaves of the heart tree were rustling his name. “Theon,” they seemed to whisper, “Theon.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

So, it doesn't seem that there are ravens ready to fly to the Wall in Winterfell on the day of the escape.

At least three ravens remain in the area. All three are bound to fly to Winterfell. One has already reached the destination.
“I see you all want blood,” the Lord of the Dreadfort said. Maester Rhodry stood beside him, a raven on his arm. The bird’s black plumage shone like coal oil in the torchlight. Wet, Theon realized. And in his lordship’s hand, a parchment. That will be wet as well. Dark wings, dark words.
(Theon, ADwD)
The other two have been taken by Stannis.
The king leaned back in his chair. "Get him out of here," he commanded. "Leave the ravens." A vein was throbbing in his neck. "Confine this grey wretch to one of the huts until I decide what is to be done with him."
(Theon, TWoW)
But these ravens are unable to fly to the Wall.
"A maester's raven flies to one place, and one place only. Is that correct?"
The maester mopped sweat from his brow with his sleeve. "N-not entirely, Your Grace. Most, yes. Some few can be taught to fly between two castles. Such birds are greatly prized. And once in a very great while, we find a raven who can learn the names of three or four or five castles, and fly to each upon command. Birds as clever as that come along only once in a hundred years."
Stannis gestured at the black birds in the cages. "These two are not so clever, I presume."
"No, Your Grace. Would that it were so."
(Theon, TWoW)
So Rhodry's bird can not have been used to carry the letter to the Wall.

I might be trying to tackle a nonexistent problem. But the constraint of the lack of ravens is too interesting not to account for.

But it seems to me that another raven might have reached Winterfell. Winter is coming and a change of seasons always brings an announcement from the Citadel. The insistence on the blackness of the plumage of the bird on Rhodry's arm reminds me of that.

By custom, the white ravens are not used to send messages. But nothing prevents them from being used as messengers as well. There are a few good hints that white ravens might function like the exceptional birds described by Maester Tybald.

The white ravens are smarter than the black variety. They seem as wise as Mormont's raven. They are not trained to return to their home, but rather they can be send to places from Oldtown. So if some ravens can be sent to arbitrary destinations, the white one can as well, since they seem as smart as ravens can possibly be.

Following this logic, the white bird that had been sent from Oldtown to reach Winterfell could have been resent to the Wall. Can any maester send a white raven?

In Oldtown, Archmaester Walgrave is the supreme scholar in matter of ravencraft. He has a special relation to his birds, in particular the white ravens.

Let's return to Whoresbane's carreer in Oldtown. Were the bowels of the prostitute eviscerated by young Whoresbane put on the weirwood of the Isle of Ravens (like those of the slavers sacrificed to the heart tree of the Wolf's Den)? Despite seemingly being illiterate, Whoresbane had supposedly the makings of a maester. Does this refer to a gift for ravenry? Did Whoresbane work with Walgrave once? Did he tend the white ravens like Pate did? And the white ravens remember. They even recall Pate's name. So they might remember Whoresbane as well. (We know nothing of the ravens' lifespan. But they seem to be the vehicles of the reincarnation of certain spirits. So the lifespan might not matter.)

Why was a particularly mediocre student like Pate put in charge of the ravens? If Whoresbane is illiterate, which is as mediocre a maester can ever hope to be, was he given that very task?

The fact that the letter to the Wall has been brought by a white raven might explain why Clydas si so disturbed and frightened when he brings the letter to Jon Snow. Of course, there might be a more interesting explanation. The consideration of the white ravens presupposes that winter arrives at that precise time. The only good hint we have of the arrival of Winter comes from Melisandre.
“All your questions shall be answered. Look to the skies, Lord Snow. And when you have your answers, send to me. Winter is almost upon us now. I am your only hope.”
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

It seems that Melisandre makes a prediction rather than repeat common wisdom about the imminence of Winter. Whether almost mean one hour, one day or one month is unclear. I tend to interpret Melisandre's prediction by the vision of a white raven in the flames. Melisandre was in Dragonstone when the raven came to announce Autumn, and therefore knows the Conclave's tradition. The exhortation to Jon Snow to look to the skies might of course refer to the arrival of the raven. This is indeed how Jon understand it.
“Melisandre ... look to the skies, she said.” He set the letter down. “A raven in a storm. She saw this coming.”
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

Of course a raven has been sent to Winterfell as well, unless the conclave has disqualified Winterfell in reason of the lack of maester affected to the ruined place.

This whole discussion might only be a distraction. It might very well be that a black raven was available in the Winterfell godswood and ready to fly to the Wall at Whoresbane's instruction.

6. The Scribe

Who has penned the letter then? It seems that Whoresbane can have sent the raven, but that Ramsay's consent was necessary for the letter to leave Winterfell. It seems that Roose played no role in the writing of the letter. No northern lord has signed (compare with the previous letters sent by Roose). So only someone in Ramsay's entourage can have written the letter. It's safe to assume that Ben Bones, Skinner and the other Bastard Boys are illiterate.

The simplest and most natural answer is Ramsay himself. Two little arguments make me have second thoughts. First, the absence of skin with the letter itself. Secondly, I hardly see how anyone could have influenced the content of the letter if Ramsay penned it.

A second solution would attribute the writing to Whoresbane. But Whoresbane does not seem literate, as his "signatures" show. If he were, he could have written whatever he wanted.

My favorite author is suggested by a letter once sent from the Dreadfort, as reported by Lothar Frey.
“Walder and Walder, yes. But they are presently at the Dreadfort, my lady. I grieve to tell you this, but there has been a battle. Winterfell is burned.”
“Burned?” Robb’s voice was incredulous.
“Your northern lords tried to retake it from the ironmen. When Theon Greyjoy saw that his prize was lost, he put the castle to the torch.”
“We have heard naught of any battle,” said Ser Brynden.
“My nephews are young, I grant you, but they were there. Big Walder wrote the letter, though his cousin signed as well. It was a bloody bit of business, by their account. Your castellan was slain. Ser Rodrik, was that his name?”
“Ser Rodrik Cassel,” said Catelyn numbly. That dear brave loyal old soul. She could almost see him, tugging on his fierce white whiskers. “What of our other people?”
“The ironmen put many of them to the sword, I fear.”
Wordless with rage, Robb slammed a fist down on the table and turned his face away, so the Freys would not see his tears.
But his mother saw them. The world grows a little darker every day. Catelyn’s thoughts went to Ser Rodrik’s little daughter Beth, to tireless Maester Luwin and cheerful Septon Chayle, Mikken at the forge, Farlen and Palla in the kennels, Old Nan and simple Hodor. Her heart was sick. “Please, not all.”
“No,” said Lame Lothar. “The women and children hid, my nephews Walder and Walder among them. With Winterfell in ruins, the survivors were carried back to the Dreadfort by this son of Lord Bolton’s.-”
“Bolton’s son?” Robb’s voice was strained.
Walder Rivers spoke up. “A bastard son, I believe.”
“Not Ramsay Snow? Does Lord Roose have another bastard?” Robb scowled. “This Ramsay was a monster and a murderer, and he died a coward. Or so I was told.”
“I cannot speak to that. There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports. All I can tell you is that my nephews claim it was this bastard son of Bolton’s who saved the women of Winterfell, and the little ones. They are safe at the Dreadfort now, all those who remain.”
“Theon,” Robb said suddenly. “What happened to Theon Greyjoy? Was he slain?”
Lame Lothar spread his hands. “That I cannot say, Your Grace. Walder and Walder made no mention of his fate. Perhaps Lord Bolton might know, if he has had word from this son of his.”
Ser Brynden said, “We will be certain to ask him.”
“You are all distraught, I see. I am sorry to have brought you such fresh grief. Perhaps we should adjourn until the morrow. Our business can wait until you have composed yourselves...”
(Catelyn IV, ASoS)
So Big Walder was perfectly capable of writing a letter according to Ramsay's wishes.

Under all appearances, Little Walder has just been murdered by Ramsay. So Big Walder remains as Ramsay's only squire. He has already been trusted to write a letter for Ramsay.

It seems that Big Walder does not enjoy Ramsay's cruelty, and does not seem to be willing to emulate him. Nevertheless, Big Walder hopes to rule the Twins one day. In my opinion, the hope is not unrealistic, and, depending on how one wants to understand Big Walder, Ramsay might be his objective ally.

So the letter might come from Big Walder's hand. Perhaps, Whoresbane dictated the letter to Big Walder.

The involvement of Big Walder is not necessary for what I am going to say. I just need a mechanism for Whoresbane to have suggested the words of the letter. The trust that Whoresbane has acquired with Ramsay might be sufficient for certain words to have reached the letter, even if Ramsay wrote with his own hand.

Note also that one of the strangest word in the letter make perfect sense from Big Walder or Whoresbane. Both of them know that Ramsay persecuted "Reek". Big Walder went into the dungeons of the Dreadfort to fetch Theon and bring him to the Great Hall. Whoresbane even tried to put an end to the bullying and torture.
At the sight of Reek, he smiled a wet-lipped smile. “There he is. My sour old friend.” To the men beside him he said, “Reek has been with me since I was a boy. My lord father gave him to me as a token of his love.”
The two lords exchanged a look. “I had heard your serving man was dead,” said the one with the stooped shoulder. “Slain by the Starks, they said.”
Lord Ramsay chuckled. “The ironmen will tell you that what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger. Like Reek. He smells of the grave, though, I grant you that.”
“He smells of nightsoil and stale vomit.” The stoop-shouldered old lord tossed aside the bone that he’d been gnawing on and wiped his fingers on the tablecloth. “Is there some reason you must needs inflict him upon us whilst we’re eating?”
The second lord, the straight-backed old man in the mail byrnie, studied Reek with flinty eyes. “Look again,” he urged the other lord. “His hair’s gone white and he is three stone thinner, aye, but this is no serving man. Have you forgotten?”
The crookback lord looked again and gave a sudden snort. “Him? Can it be? Stark’s ward. Smiling, always smiling.”
“He smiles less often now,” Lord Ramsay confessed. “I may have broken some of his pretty white teeth.”
“You would have done better to slit his throat,” said the lord in mail. “A dog who turns against his master is fit for naught but skinning.”
(Reek I, ADwD)
A moment later.
“This grows tedious,” said the lord in the mail byrnie. “Kill him and be done with it.”
(Reek I, ADwD)

7. The Song of Winks

Beside the signature, one name and only one name is mentioned in the text: Mance Rayder. The letter could have named Stannis, Arya, Selyse, Shireen, Melisandre, Jon Snow, Val, Mance's son, Theon. For all of them, a circumvolution is used: false king, bride, false king's queen, his daughter, his red witch, bastard, wildling princess, the wildling babe, Reek. To maintain a consistent style, an expression like the wildling king, or again the King-Beyond-the-Wall, could have been used for Mance. Thus the name Mance Rayder is singled out in the letter.

Two colors are mentioned in the letter: red and black, precisely the colors of Mance's cloak. The reference is precise. The redness of Melisandre comes from the silk of Asshai, just like the redness of Mance's cloak. The blackness of the black crows comes from their cloak, including Mance's cloak. So the letter is colored the colors and textures of Mance's cloak.

In themselves, those observations prove nothing. There are always funny things to notice. But what follows is not a coincidence.

Here is a sample of words taken from the letter.

false king – his host – magic sword – red whore – walls – bastard – false king lied – burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall – Mance Rayder – cage – for all the north to see – cage is cold – six whores – red witch – wildling princess – black crows.

Of course it is a selection, seemingly arbitrary. But it contains all the elements to reconstitute a previous scene, provided two inversions are accepted. Not quite all elements in truth: as we will see, something  is missing.

Here is the scene It reproduced below without the non descriptive sentences.
They brought forth the King-Beyond-the-Wall with his hands bound by hempen rope and a noose around his neck.
The other end of the rope was looped about the saddle horn of Ser Godry Farring’s courser. The Giantslayer and his mount were armored in silvered steel inlaid with niello. Mance Rayder wore only a thin tunic that left his limbs naked to the cold.

Beneath the weeping Wall, Lady Melisandre raised her pale white hands. “We all must choose,” she proclaimed. “Man or woman, young or old, lord or peasant, our choices are the same.” Her voice made Jon Snow think of anise and nutmeg and cloves. She stood at the king’s side on a wooden scaffold raised above the pit. “We choose light or we choose darkness. We choose good or we choose evil. We choose the true god or the false.”
Mance Rayder’s thick grey-brown hair blew about his face as he walked. He pushed it from his eyes with bound hands, smiling. But when he saw the cage, his courage failed him. The queen’s men had made it from the trees of the haunted forest, from saplings and supple branches, pine boughs sticky with sap, and the bone-white fingers of the weirwoods. They’d bent them and twisted them around and through each other to weave a wooden lattice, then hung it high above a deep pit filled with logs, leaves, and kindling.
The wildling king recoiled from the sight. “No,” he cried, “mercy. This is not right, I’m not the king, they—”
Ser Godry gave a pull on the rope. The King-Beyond-the-Wall had no choice but to stumble after him, the rope choking off his words. When he lost his feet, Godry dragged him the rest of the way. Mance was bloody when the queen’s men half-shoved, half-carried him to the cage. A dozen men-at-arms heaved together to hoist him into the air.
Lady Melisandre watched him rise. “FREE FOLK! Here stands your king of lies. And here is the horn he promised would bring down the Wall.” Two queen’s men brought forth the Horn of Joramun, black and banded with old gold, eight feet long from end to end. Runes were carved into the golden bands, the writing of the First Men.

A thousand captives watched through the wooden bars of their stockade as the horn was lifted high. All were ragged and half-starved. Wildlings, the Seven Kingdoms called them; they named themselves the free folk. They looked neither wild nor free—only hungry, frightened, numb.
“The Horn of Joramun?” Melisandre said. “No. Call it the Horn of Darkness. If the Wall falls, night falls as well, the long night that never ends. It must not happen, will not happen! The Lord of Light has seen his children in their peril and sent a champion to them, Azor Ahai reborn.” She swept a hand toward Stannis, and the great ruby at her throat pulsed with light.
He is stone and she is flame. The king’s eyes were blue bruises, sunk deep in a hollow face. He wore grey plate, a fur-trimmed cloak of cloth-of-gold flowing from his broad shoulders. His breastplate had a flaming heart inlaid above his own. Girding his brows was a red-gold crown with points like twisting flames. Val stood beside him, tall and fair. They had crowned her with a simple circlet of dark bronze, yet she looked more regal in bronze than Stannis did in gold. Her eyes were grey and fearless, unflinching. Beneath an ermine cloak, she wore white and gold. Her honey-blond hair had been done up in a thick braid that hung over her right shoulder to her waist. The chill in the air had put color in her cheeks.
Lady Melisandre wore no crown, but every man there knew that she was Stannis Baratheon’s real queen, not the homely woman he had left to shiver at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

“FREE FOLK!” cried Melisandre. “Behold the fate of those who choose the darkness!”
The Horn of Joramun burst into flame.
It went up with a whoosh as swirling tongues of green and yellow fire leapt up crackling all along its length. Jon’s garron shied nervously, and up and down the ranks others fought to still their mounts as well. A moan came from the stockade as the free folk saw their hope afire. A few began to shout and curse, but most lapsed into silence. For half a heartbeat the runes graven on the gold bands seemed to shimmer in the air. The queen’s men gave a heave and sent the horn tumbling down into the fire pit.
Inside his cage, Mance Rayder clawed at the noose about his neck with bound hands and screamed incoherently of treachery and witchery, denying his kingship, denying his people, denying his name, denying all that he had ever been. He shrieked for mercy and cursed the red woman and began to laugh hysterically.
Jon watched unblinking. He dare not appear squeamish before his brothers. He had ordered out two hundred men, more than half the garrison of Castle Black. Mounted in solemn sable ranks with tall spears in hand, they had drawn up their hoods to shadow their faces ... and hide the fact that so many were greybeards and green boys. The free folk feared the Watch. Jon wanted them to take that fear with them to their new homes south of the Wall.
The horn crashed amongst the logs and leaves and kindling. Within three heartbeats the whole pit was aflame. Clutching the bars of his cage with bound hands, Mance sobbed and begged. When the fire reached him he did a little dance. His screams became one long, wordless shriek of fear and pain. Within his cage, he fluttered like a burning leaf, a moth caught in a candle flame.

Val stood on the platform as still as if she had been carved of salt. She will not weep nor look away.

Jon Snow had seen enough. “Now,” he said.
Ulmer of the Kingswood jammed his spear into the ground, unslung his bow, and slipped a black arrow from his quiver. Sweet Donnel Hill threw back his hood to do the same. Garth Greyfeather and Bearded Ben nocked shafts, bent their bows, loosed.
One arrow took Mance Rayder in the chest, one in the gut, one in the throat. The fourth struck one of the cage’s wooden bars, and quivered for an instant before catching fire. A woman’s sobs echoed off the Wall as the wildling king slid bonelessly to the floor of his cage, wreathed in fire.

Up on the platform, Stannis was scowling. Jon refused to meet his eyes. The bottom had fallen out of the wooden cage, and its bars were crumbling. Every time the fire licked upward, more branches tumbled free, cherry red and black. “The Lord of Light made the sun and moon and stars to light our way, and gave us fire to keep the night at bay,” Melisandre told the wildlings. “None can withstand his flames.”
“None can withstand his flames,” the queen’s men echoed.
The red woman’s robes of deep-dyed scarlet swirled about her, and her coppery hair made a halo round her face. Tall yellow flames danced from her fingertips like claws. “FREE FOLK! Your false gods cannot help you. Your false horn did not save you. Your false king brought you only death, despair, defeat ... but here stands the true king. BEHOLD HIS GLORY!”
Stannis Baratheon drew Lightbringer.
The sword glowed red and yellow and orange, alive with light. Jon had seen the show before ... but not like this, never before like this. Light-bringer was the sun made steel. When Stannis raised the blade above his head, men had to turn their heads or cover their eyes. Horses shied, and one threw his rider. The blaze in the fire pit seemed to shrink before this storm of light, like a small dog cowering before a larger one. The Wall itself turned red and pink and orange, as waves of color danced across the ice. Is this the power of king’s blood?
“Westeros has but one king,” said Stannis. His voice rang harsh, with none of Melisandre’s music. “With this sword I defend my subjects and destroy those who menace them. Bend the knee, and I promise you food, land, and justice. Kneel and live. Or go and die. The choice is yours.” He slipped Lightbringer into its scabbard, and the world darkened once again, as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. “Open the gates.”
(Jon III, ADwD)
Let's look at our list of words again and compare with the scene at the Wall.

false king (Stannis) – his host (the Queen's Men) – magic sword (Lightbringer) – red whore (Melisandre, cursed by "Mance" as he died) – walls (The Wall) – bastard (Jon Snow) – false king lied (King of lies) – burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall (gave Mance to the cold) – Mance Rayder – cage (the cage) – for all the north to see (see below) – cage is cold (cage in the pyre) – six whores (the wildlings) – red witch (Melisandre, see below) – wildling princess (Val) – black crows (The night's watch).

Two inversions need to be accepted:
Hence the all the elements of the scene at the Wall are represented in the letter. All? One element is missing, and only one element: the Horn of Joramun. We'll return to that later.

So the letter seems to recreate in words the scene at the Wall.

It's worthwile to add to the lists several comments made by Mance, in the guise of Rattleshirt.
“Stannis burned the wrong man.”
“No.” The wildling grinned at him through a mouth of brown and broken teeth. “He burned the man he had to burn, for all the world to see. We all do what we have to do, Snow. Even kings.”
(Jon VI, ADwD)
“Not me. I’m done with those bloody fools.” Rattleshirt tapped the ruby on his wrist. “Ask your red witch, bastard.”
(Jon IV, ADwD)

So Stannis burned "Mance" in a cage for all the world to see. Ramsay gave Mance to the cold in a cage for all the north to see.
The phrase red witch is of course in the letter.

The use of the term black crows is slightly odd. The term crows is used by all kind of people to designate the black brothers of the Night's Watch, including by Amory Lorch, and Whoresbane.
Hother wanted ships. “There’s wildlings stealing down from the north, more than I’ve ever seen before. They cross the Bay of Seals in little boats and wash up on our shores. The crows in Eastwatch are too few to stop them, and they go to ground quick as weasels. It’s longships we need, aye, and strong men to sail them. The Greatjon took too many. Half our harvest is gone to seed for want of arms to swing the scythes.”
(Bran II, ACoK)

But the composite term black crow seems to be used exclusively by wildlings (Osha, Mance, Ygritte, Tormund, Craster, Harma and Rattleshirt). It is used exactly once by a non-wildling: by Jon when he talks to Halleck.
“We hold the Wall. The Wall protects the realm ... and you now. You know the foe we face. You know what’s coming down on us. Some of you have faced them before. Wights and white walkers, dead things with blue eyes and black hands. I’ve seen them too, fought them, sent one to hell. They kill, then they send your dead against you. The giants were not able to stand against them, nor you Thenns, the ice-river clans, the Hornfoots, the free folk ... and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder, they are growing stronger. You left your homes and came south in your hundreds and your thousands ... why, but to escape them? To be safe. Well, it’s the Wall that keeps you safe. It’s us that keeps you safe, the black crows you despise.”
(Jon V, ADwD)

So Jon borrows the term explicitly from the wildling vocabulary, which seems to reinforce my notion. But I don't want to make too much of this observation. If someone wanted to pass as Ramsay in the letter, he wouldn't use words that Ramsay would consider as odd. After all, appending the adjective black might not be that significant, beyond a pejorative coloring.

The terms little prince and wildling princess have been introduced at the Wall, as soon as Val and Mance's son are taken prisoner after the battle.
“He’s hungry,” said the blonde woman Val, the one the black brothers called the wildling
princess. “He’s lived on goats’ milk up to now, and potions from that blind maester.”
The boy did not have a name yet, no more than Gilly’s did. That was the wildling way. Not
even Mance Rayder’s son would get a name till his third year, it would seem, though Sam had heard the brothers calling him “the little prince” and “born-in-battle.”
(Sam, ASoS)

It's clearly vocabulary coming from the Wall. Of course, Mance and the washerwomen might have been forced to reveal those denominations to Ramsay.

The imagery of Mance in his cage recalls an old story told aboard the Shy Maid. It has no relevance to our current questions, but I can't resist mentionning it.
“The conquerors did not believe either, Hugor Hill,” said Ysilla. “The men of Volantis and Valyria hung Garin in a golden cage and made mock as he called upon his Mother to destroy them…"
(Tyrion V, ADwD)

he called upon his Mother to destroy them… that might find a resonance, as we will see. Note that crow's cages are well known in Westeros, even in Winterfell. Catelyn tells Rob.
“Your first duty is to defend your own people, win back Winterfell, and hang Theon in a crow’s cage to die slowly. Or else put off that crown for good, Robb, for men will know that you are no true king at all.”
(Catelyn II, ASoS)
Ramsay's final threat: Cut out your bastard's heart and eat it will be examined separately.

So the author of the letter is well informed of the ceremony at the Wall. So it can be only by through Stannis, Mance, or the washerwomen. Stannis might have known that Mance has been spared. However, I can't even begin to imagine a situation where Stannis would try to pass as Ramsay. So I won't discuss the hypothesis.

I conclude that the words in the letter come from Mance or the washerwomen. Of course, Mance is unlikely to be literate. Nobody can learn his letters beyond the Wall, and hardly anyone is allowed to access a maester at the Wall without a good reason.

So far, there is no reason to doubt the information in the letter. Mance is Ramsay's prisoner. But he might still have an ally in Whoresbane. We saw that Mance and Crowfood were complicit in the organisation of the escape. There are a few reasons to believe that Whoresbane is in good term with his brother. As we saw, trust has been built between Ramsay and Whoresbane over several months.

We have no detail about Mance's captivity. But being in cage seems to imply that anyone can come to him.

The most likely situation in Winterfell is that Ramsay rules. Roose has left with Walda, the maesters, most of his host. He probably left some men with Ramsay, including whoever remains among the Bastard's boys. Big Walder and Whoresbane might still be with Ramsay. Of course, Whoresbane has a priori all reasons to return to the Last Hearth.

Why would Ramsay have let Whoresbane decide which words would be in the letter?

We had a good example of a standard procedure for writing letters, when Stannis announced his claim to the realm.
“Pylos, read it to him.”
“Your Grace.” The maester took up one of the parchments and cleared his throat. “All men know me for the trueborn son of Steffon Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End, by his lady wife Cassana of House Estermont. I declare upon the honor of my House that my beloved brother Robert, our late king, left no trueborn issue of his body, the boy Joffrey, the boy Tommen, and the girl Myrcella being abominations born of incest between Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime the Kingslayer. By right of birth and blood, I do this day lay claim to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Let all true men declare their loyalty. Done in the Light of the Lord, under the sign and seal of Stannis of House Baratheon, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.” The parchment rustled softly as Pylos laid it down.
“Make it Ser Jaime the Kingslayer henceforth,” Stannis said, frowning. “Whatever else the man may be, he remains a knight. I don’t know that we ought to call Robert my beloved brother either. He loved me no more than he had to, nor I him.”
“A harmless courtesy, Your Grace,” Pylos said.
“A lie. Take it out.”
(Davos I, ACoK)

So the maester proposes, and the lord disposes. The possibility of the agency of a maester in the choice of words of a letter has been put forward by Barbrey Dustin.
The grey rats read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves, and who can say for a certainty that they are not twisting the words for their own ends?
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

Thus, we have reached the second layer in the interpretation of the letter. Mance's dictation through the help of Whoresbane, under Ramsay's nose.

However, we shouldn't be surprised to find so much input from Mance Rayder in the letter, since it appears that Mance is Ramsay's prisoner and has delivered to his goaler everything in his knowledge in his own words.

I do not find reasonable that the words in the letter reconstitute Melisandre's pageant at the Wall without a deliberate intent.

But what can Mance expect of the words he has inserted in the letter?

8. Friends at the Wall

Let's recapitulate what Mance could know of the current situation at the Wall.

After his capture by Stannis, Mance had been kept prisoner in a cell where he had access only to Stannis himself and his men. After escaping the pyre, he began a new life as Rattleshirt. Melisandre seems to think Mance was under her influence as long as he wore the ruby at his wrist. But "Rattleshirt" joined Stannis and was left free to roam Castle Black.

During Stannis' last war council, he offered to serve the Watch, without joining it. We just saw that he probably noticed later Jon's dismay at the annoucement of Arya's wedding. It seems Mance was under Melisandre's influence during that period. In any case, they became collaborators and planned together to convert Jon Snow to their cause. It's probably his advice that incited Melisandre to ask Jon about Arya.

It seems Mance might have surprised the plotting of Bowen Marsh and co.
“The black brothers do not love you. Devan tells me that only yesterday you had words with some of them over supper.”
“A few. I was eating bean-and-bacon soup whilst Bowen Marsh was going on about the high ground. The Old Pomegranate thought that I was spying on him and announced that he would not suffer murderers listening to their councils. I told him that if that was true, maybe they shouldn’t have them by the fire. Bowen turned red and made some choking sounds, but that was as far as it went.”
(Melisandre, ADwD)

Mance offered his collaboration to Jon, especially for ranging beyond the Wall. First during Stannis' council.
“I’ll range for you, bastard,” Rattleshirt declared. “I’ll give you sage counsel or sing you pretty songs, as you prefer. I’ll even fight for you. Just don’t ask me to wear your cloak.”
(Jon IV, ADwD)
And again in Melisandre's quarters.
“I heard about your rangers. You should have sent me with them.”
(Melisandre, ADwD)

Jon was trying to find Tormund and bring the Free Folk south of the Wall. After three out of the nine rangers sent by Jon returned dead, Jon decided to send Val in search of Tormund and his people. It seems that Mance intended to bring Tormund as well.
“Cutting out the eyes, that’s the Weeper’s work. The best crow’s a blind crow, he likes to say. Sometimes I think he’d like to cut out his own eyes, the way they’re always watering and itching. Snow’s been assuming the free folk would turn to Tormund to lead them, because that’s what he would do. He liked Tormund, and the old fraud liked him too. If it’s the Weeper, though ... that’s not good. Not for him, and not for us.”
Melisandre nodded solemnly, as if she had taken his words to heart, but this Weeper did not matter. None of his free folk mattered. They were a lost people, a doomed people, destined to vanish from the earth, as the children of the forest had vanished. Those were not words he would wish to hear, though, and she could not risk losing him, not now.
(Melisandre, ADwD)

Since Mance had ideas of his own on how to conduct the ranging, it's likely that is was at Mance suggestion. Indeed, that was just after Mance had revealed himself to Jon.

An important question concerns the communication between Val and Mance before Mance and Val left Castle Black. There is a good hint that they did communicate.
“His milk name. I had to call him something. See that he stays safe and warm. For his mother’s sake, and mine. And keep him away from the red woman. She knows who he is. She sees things in her fires.”
Arya, he thought, hoping it was so. “Ashes and cinders.”
“Kings and dragons.”
(Jon VIII, ADwD)
Who, but Mance, could have told Val about Melisandre's visions?

In any case, Mance had the means to meet Val, even when she was confined in her tower. Indeed he told Jon Snow.
“I could visit you as easily, my lord. Those guards at your door are a bad jape. A man who has climbed the Wall half a hundred times can climb in a window easy enough. But what good would come of killing you? The crows would only choose someone worse.”
(Melisandre, ADwD)

If Mance could have advised Val before her departure, which seems likely if the idea of sending Val occured to Jon at Mance's suggestion, then Mance might have had a reasonable idea of the moment of Tormund's arrival at the Wall. If can see no reason why Jon could have denied Mance a visit from Val. Moreover, Val had a definite timetable for her return, since she informed Jon to expect her by the full moon.
“The first night of the full moon, then.”
(Jon VIII, ADwD)

So it is not unreasonable to think that Mance would expect the wildlings' presence at castle Black by the time of the sending of the letter. However, Val does not seem to have returned as soon as she had forecast, according to my chronology.

If Mance could not communicate with Val, he must have assumed that she was still at the Wall.

Mance never seems to have revealed to Jon and Melisandre that the Horn burned in the pyre was not the genuine Horn of Joramun.

To recapitulate, Mance might hope to be heard at the Wall by Jon Snow, Melisandre and Val.

9. The Heart of the Bastard

There is no sign that Jon Snow has perceived any meddling of Mance in the letter.

Ramsay's final threat is intriguing: I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it. It is not out of character for Ramsay, but not one of his preferred threats, which seem to involve flaying, as at least three instances show. The first is about Barbrey Dustin.
“If I cut off her teats and feed them to my girls, will she abide me then? Will she abide me if I strip off her skin to make myself a pair of boots?”
(Reek III, ADwD)
Ramsay promised to avenge the murder of Yellow Dick.
“When we find the man who did this,” Lord Ramsay promised, “I will flay the skin off him, cook it crisp as crackling, and make him eat it, every bite.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Finally, there is the murder of Little Walder.
“What man?” Ramsay demanded. “Give me his name. Point him out to me, boy, and I will make you a cloak of his skin.”
(Theon, ADwD)

Mance and Whoresbane have heard the last two threats, and they know about Ramsay's flaying practices. So an imitation of Ramsay which mentions Reek, should also mention flaying. Hence the mention of heart-eating has been thought out.

It might indicate that the words of the letter have been chosen to play on a different register than the convey of information, or the dispatch of instructions. Those words might tap into Jon Snow's deep nature.

So let's discuss the practice of cutting hearts and eating them. Mance has already suggested to cut Jon Snow's black heart to Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, and descendant of the First Men. Another wink? I am not sure.
Styr scowled. “His heart may still be black.”
“Then cut it out.”
(Jon II, ASoS)
The practice seems to be a Skagosi custom.
Some songs said the Skaggs were cannibals; supposedly their warriors ate the hearts and livers of the men they slew.
(Samwell II, ASoS)

We meet the custom at another point, in the mouth of Martyn Rivers when he talks of the Young Wolf's fearsome reputation.
“There’s some say that after the battle, the king cut out Stafford Lannister’s heart and fed it to the wolf.”
“I would not believe such tales,” Catelyn said sharply. “My son is no savage.”
(Catelyn III, ACoK)

Note how Catelyn characterizes the practice as barbaric. From the dialogue, one would think that it is normal to believe northmen capable of such savagery, as if it corresponded to well known folk tales. Catelyn Stark sees perhaps herself as having played her part in bringing civilization to the north. This is well in line with the common view that modernizing and reactionary forces are in play in the north, the Tully marriage of Ned Stark being an expression of modernization, the Greatjon declaration of independence being the opposite movement.

Among wargs, the practice of heart eating seems to have significance, as we learn through Varamyr.
Haggon was weak, afraid of his own power. He died weeping and alone when I ripped his second life from him. Varamyr had devoured his heart himself.
(Prologue, ADwD)
And later, Varamyr would call himself Haggon.
The terrible Lord Varamyr had gone craven, but he could not bear that she should know that, so he told the spearwife that his name was Haggon. Afterward he wondered why that name had come to his lips, of all those he might have chosen. I ate his heart and drank his blood, and still he haunts me.
(Prologue, ADwD)

So it would seem that eating the heart played a role in preventing Haggon to have a second life. Worse, the fact that Varamyr called himself unwittingly Haggon might be a sign that Haggon somehow lives within Varamyr – just like Hodor is still alive in a corner of his mind when Bran takes over him. The capacity to recognize other skinchangers on sight signals that wargs have a special instinct. I believe the threat had a special significance for Jon, even if he did not rationalize it. Thus the strong emotional reaction. The "author" of the letter knew that Jon is a warg, knew the significance of heart eating and put the threat deliberately in the letter to push Jon Snow over the edge.

Mance knows indeed that Jon Snow is a warg. So the notion might come from him. But that is at odds with the notion that Mance wants to inform Jon Snow that he is behind the letter.

Perhaps Mance played on different registers, being unsure of what will be understood of the letter. Perhaps, the bastard heart part came from Ramsay himself. In any case, the letter did have the desired effect on Jon Snow.

Just for completeness, the practice of eating the heart of the enemy is also encountered in the fighting pits of Meereen.
After it was done, Khrazz cut the heart from the black man, raised it above his head red and dripping, and took a bite from it.
“Khrazz believes the hearts of brave men make him stronger,” said Hizdahr. Jhiqui murmured her approval. Dany had once eaten a stallion’s heart to give strength to her unborn son ... but that had not saved Rhaego when the maegi murdered him in her womb.
(Daenerys X, ADwD)

Dany gives us an interesting angle with the story of the stallion's heart, eaten to prove that her son would be the Stallion-who-mounts-the-world. Varamyr ate Haggon's heart, and Haggon seems to be resurfacing in him. Hence eating a creature's heart has transformating power over the eater according to the nature of the eaten.

Khrazz later told Barristan.
Khrazz laughed. “Old man. I will eat your heart.”
(The Kingbreaker, ADwD)

I would tend to conjecture that the practice of eating hearts is particular to a savage part of ancient northern culture (the Thenns, Skagos, wargs). (The practice might have been brought to the slave pits of Meereen by the occasional Skaggs/wildlings champions taken there by the slavers.)

Perhaps it's worthwhile to discuss the related practice of eating livers, which has its devotees. In Slaver's Bay.
I knew a man, Scarb, this Oznak cut his liver out. Claimed to be defending a lady’s honor, he did, said Scarb had raped her with his eyes.
(Daenerys V, ASoS)
Cotter's Pyke, an ironman on the Wall, used it as a threat – not entirely seriously.
“Lord Snow,” said Cotter Pyke, “if you muck this up, I’m going to rip your liver out and eat it raw with onions.”
(Jon XII, ASoS)

Note that Cotter Pyke is at Eastwatch, close to Skagos, and that there are skaggs in Eastwatch. The liver and onions meal is well known to Strong Belwas in Meereen (again the culture of the fighting pits).

Jon is threatened, perhaps again not entirely seriously, another time by Tormund as Tormund introduces the last hostage.
“My son Dryn. You’ll see he’s well taken care of, crow, or I’ll cook your black liver up and eat it.”
(Jon XII, ADwD)

So eating the heart and liver of one's foes seems to belong to the slave pits of Meereen and the more primitive cultures of  the north (wildlings, skaggs, wargs).

Let's return to our thesis: the letter is devised to manipulate Jon Snow to come to Winterfell.

How did Mance know that Jon would break his vows and come? Here is Jon after his fight with "Rattleshirt".
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. “Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to ...” His heart seemed to stop for a moment. No, that is not possible. She died in King’s Landing, with Father.
“Lord Snow?” Clydas peered at him closely with his dim pink eyes. “Are you ... unwell? You seem ...”
“He’s to marry Arya Stark. My little sister.” Jon could almost see her in that moment, long-faced and gawky, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, with her dirty face and tangled hair. They would wash the one and comb the other, he did not doubt, but he could not imagine Arya in a wedding gown, nor Ramsay Bolton’s bed. No matter how afraid she is, she will not show it. If he tries to lay a hand on her, she’ll fight him.
“Your sister,” Iron Emmett said, “how old is ...”
By now she’d be eleven, Jon thought. Still a child. “I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you.” Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton’s throat as easily.
Clydas cleared his throat. “Will there be an answer?”
Jon shook his head and walked away.
(Jon VI, ADwD)

"Rattleshirt" has certainly perceived Jon's dismay. It's likely that he reported Jon's reaction to Melisandre who mentioned Arya to Jon the next day.
“The heart is all that matters. Do not despair, Lord Snow. Despair is a weapon of the enemy, whose name may not be spoken. Your sister is not lost to you.”
“I have no sister.” The words were knives. What do you know of my heart, priestess? What do you know of my sister?
Melisandre seemed amused. “What is her name, this little sister that you do not have?”
“Arya.” His voice was hoarse. “My half-sister, truly ...”
“... for you are bastard born. I had not forgotten. I have seen your sister in my fires, fleeing from this marriage they have made for her. Coming here, to you. A girl in grey on a dying horse, I have seen it plain as day. It has not happened yet, but it will.”
(Jon VI, ADwD)
Jon's reaction at the final letter was to be expected. Mance could easily have anticipated it.
“Snow?” said Tormund Giantsbane. “You look like your father’s bloody head just rolled out o’ that paper.”
(Jon VI, ADwD)

Jon was likely most shocked by the passage which juxtaposed Ramsay's cruelty and Jon's helpless sister: ...I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell. I want my bride back.

It seems Jon Snow wasn't at peace with his conscience when he thought of his sister, as the following thought concerning Axell Florent shows indirectly.
What sort of man can stand by idly and watch his own brother being burned alive?
(Jon IX, ADwD)
When Jon went to the godswood beyond the Wall, he addressed a prayer to the trees.
May those deaths be long in coming. Jon Snow sank to one knee in the snow. Gods of my fathers, protect these men. And Arya too, my little sister, wherever she might be. I pray you, let Mance find her and bring her safe to me.
(Jon VII, ADwD)
Certainly the Old Gods know the state of Jon's heart.

It is the bastard's heart part which justifies the oathbreaking. Indeed, Jon tells his brothers.
“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words ... but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless ...” Jon paused. “... is there any man here who will come stand with me?”
The roar was all he could have hoped for, the tumult so loud that the two old shields tumbled from the walls. Soren Shieldbreaker was on his feet, the Wanderer as well. Toregg the Tall, Brogg, Harle the Huntsman and Harle the Handsome both, Ygon Oldfather, Blind Doss, even the Great Walrus. I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

We can conclude that Mance was well placed to understand Jon's concern for Arya's safety and to have calculated that Jon would never given his sister back to Ramsay. Mance knows better than most the dilemma of breaking his vows. Didn't he leave the Wall for a better cause once?
“One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadowcat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. Do you see? Here, here, and here?” He chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wisewoman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears... and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said.”
“I left the next morning... for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.”
(Jon I, ASoS)
And in the words of Qhorin Halfhand.
When he left the Shadow Tower he was only going home again.
(Jon VII, ACoK)
Who would know better than him how Jon would react to the letter ?

10. The magic Sword

Let's turn now to the second intended recipient of the letter.

We have known Stannis' sword, "Lightbringer", for a long time. Here is the description of the sword.
As he neared, she saw that Stannis wore a crown of red gold with points fashioned in the shape of flames. His belt was studded with garnets and yellow topaz, and a great square-cut ruby was set in the hilt of the sword he wore.
(Catelyn III, ACoK)

The sword is pretty and produces impressive colors. However, it does not provide any warmth, and nobody that counts seems to acknowledge it as Lighbringer, not even Stannis. We heard Sallador and maester Aemon express their doubts. However, the sword is set with a ruby. Melisandre seems to think that she has power over people wearing certain other rubies. Indeed, here is the ruby she has given Mance.
Rattleshirt sat scratching at the manacle on his wrist with a cracked yellow fingernail. Brown stubble covered his sunken cheeks and receding chin, and strands of dirty hair hung across his eyes. “Here he comes,” he said when he saw Jon, “the brave boy who slew Mance Rayder when he was caged and bound.” The big square-cut gem that adorned his iron cuff glimmered redly. “Do you like my ruby, Snow? A token o’ love from Lady Red.”
(Jon IV, ADwD)
And later.
“Not me. I’m done with those bloody fools.” Rattleshirt tapped the ruby on his wrist. “Ask your red witch, bastard.”
Melisandre spoke softly in a strange tongue. The ruby at her throat throbbed slowly, and Jon saw that the smaller stone on Rattleshirt’s wrist was brightening and darkening as well. “So long as he wears the gem he is bound to me, blood and soul,” the red priestess said. “This man will serve you faithfully. The flames do not lie, Lord Snow.”
(Melisandre, ADwD)
When Mance, Jon and Melisandre met.
“The glamor, aye.” In the black iron fetter about his wrist, the ruby seemed to pulse. He tapped it with the edge of his blade. The steel made a faint click against the stone. “I feel it when I sleep. Warm against my skin, even through the iron. Soft as a woman’s kiss. Your kiss. But sometimes in my dreams it starts to burn, and your lips turn into teeth. Every day I think how easy it would be to pry it out, and every day I don’t. Must I wear the bloody bones as well?”
(Melisandre, ADwD)

Melisandre seems to think she can control Mance through the ruby. I am not sure what to think on the matter. Did she have influence over Stannis as well in this way? It would seem so. Could she do something over Ramsay who has claimed the sword? Perhaps.

Then, a certain meaning is to be given to the instruction: I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.

For the record, here is the theory that has currently my favour. If Melisandre has control over other wearer of rubies through the gemstone she wears at her neck, she might in turn be controlled by a higher power. I tend to think that Melisandre is just an agent. We see other instances of suspicious rubies in the story – perhaps related to the same power, but that's off topic for now. It would be very interesting to determine the origin of the sword, or at least, of the ruby, which might be the only truly magical aspect of the sword. Who gave it to Melisandre? Does it come from Asshai?

I fancy sometimes that the story could take a different turn entirely. Melisandre often errs. She occasionally renounced her previous beliefs. When she asked for Azor Ahai, hoping to find Stannis.
I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R’hllor shows me only Snow.
(Melisandre, ADwD)

In the not distant future, Melisandre will realize that Stannis is not the messiah she expects. Then what will she do? It seems to me that she might recognize the current owner of Lightbringer as the genuine Azor Ahai. He happens to be a Snow, interestingly enough.

Let's leave aside this hypothesis, and note that Mance might very well hope that Melisandre can save him from Ramsay, by acting through the ruby on the sword. And the message clearly addressed to Melisandre might be of some importance: I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.

Indeed we know that Lady Melisandre heard the reading of the letter.
”A flash of red in the back of the hall caught Jon’s eye. Lady Melisandre had arrived. “But now I find I cannot go to Hardhome. The ranging will be led by Tormund Giantsbane, known to you all. I have promised him as many men as he requires.”
“And where will you be, crow?” Borroq thundered. “Hiding here in Castle Black with your white dog?”
“No. I ride south.” Then Jon read them the letter Ramsay Snow had written.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)
Indeed Jon has told the red whore.

11. The Maid of Winter

Mance's truest friend at the Wall is Val. As Dalla's sister, she knows the King-beyond-the-Wall better than anyone alive, it seems. Indeed, Val pleaded impassionately for Mance's life.
“Is it Mance? Val begged the king to spare him. She said she’d let some kneeler marry her and never slit his throat if only Mance could live. That Lord o’Bones, he’s to be spared. Craster always swore he’d kill him if he ever showed his face about the keep. Mance never did half the things he done.”
(Jon II, ADwD)

It seems that Val accepted to participate in Melisandre's pageant at the Wall in exchange for the life of the King-beyond-the Wall.

Dalla could attend all councils of Mance, even those Tormund was excluded from. Val seems to have taken her sister's place somehow (at least if we judge by the clothes she chose to wear upon her return to the Wall). We wondered already about the significance of leadership and her symbolic relation to Winter.

We discussed already the possibility that Mance would know about her expedition to find Tormund and her return to the Wall at a specific time. It is thus possible that Mance and Val coordinated their actions.

However, if Mance expected to have a wildling host at the Wall, he might have been in his interest to signal his survival. Indeed, here is how the wildlings reacted when they were read the letter by Jon.
Then Jon read them the letter Ramsay Snow had written.
The Shieldhall went mad.
Every man began to shout at once. They leapt to their feet, shaking fists. So much for the calming power of comfortable benches. Swords were brandished, axes smashed against shields. Jon Snow looked to Tormund. The Giantsbane sounded his horn once more, twice as long and twice as loud as the first time.
“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words ... but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless ...” Jon paused. “... is there any man here who will come stand with me?”
The roar was all he could have hoped for, the tumult so loud that the two old shields tumbled from the walls. Soren Shieldbreaker was on his feet, the Wanderer as well. Toregg the Tall, Brogg, Harle the Huntsman and Harle the Handsome both, Ygon Oldfather, Blind Doss, even the Great Walrus.
I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard.
(Jon XIII, ADwD)

Of course, the wildling host's furor is motivated exclusively by the defense of their king. Even the assassination of Jon Snow should not prevent them from coming to the rescue. If Mance has calculated that his words would reach his people, the calculation was spot on.

Two additional layers of meaning of the letter deserve to be considered. Since they border on the fantastical, I'll refrain from excessive speculations.

Did Mance hope Val would understand the winks in the letter ? Tormund said of her.
“Don’t bandy words with this one, Lord Snow, she’s too clever for the likes o’ you and me. Best steal her quick, before Toregg wakes up and takes her first.”
(Jon XI, ADwD)

We might take this pronouncement as a sign that Val would conceive a better understanding of the letter than the likes of Jon and Tormund. As yet, Val has not heard about the letter. The wildlings at the Wall will undoubtly report the content to her. Whether anyone will be able to repeat the exact wording is uncertain though.

Would Val understand the allusion to the pyre at the Wall? Would she notice the omission of the Horn of Joramun?

12. The Dead of Winterfell

The following sentences seem to have a clear meaning. Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. They designate under all probability Ramsay's vanquished enemies.

It's perhaps time to recall that Winterfell has been a Stark place for millenia. The heart of the place seems to be the system comprised of the godswood and the crypts underneath. From there a collective entity is watching, its spirits having been assimilated by the heart tree. The extent of the agency of that entity is not clear. But it seems able to enter the dreams of certain denizens of Winterfell. Theon had a series of significant nightmares when he was the prince of Winterfell.

I can't say the dead have influenced the writing of the letter and I will not propose a mechanism to that extent.

The exhortation Come see them, bastard is then well in line with the series of dreams of Jon Snow that feature the crypts. Here is an account of one of them.

Jon shook his head. “No one. The castle is always empty.” He had never told anyone of the dream, and he did not understand why he was telling Sam now, yet somehow it felt good to talk of it. “Even the ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones. That always scares me. I start to run then, throwing open doors, climbing the tower three steps at a time, screaming for someone, for anyone. And then I find myself in front of the door to the crypts. It’s black inside, and I can see the steps spiraling down. Somehow I know I have to go down there, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid of what might be waiting for me. The old Kings of Winter are down there, sitting on their thrones with stone wolves at their feet and iron swords across their laps, but it’s not them I’m afraid of. I scream that I’m not a Stark, that this isn’t my place, but it’s no good, I have to go anyway, so I start down, feeling the walls as I descend, with no torch to light the way. It gets darker and darker, until I want to scream.” He stopped, frowning, embarrassed. “That’s when I always wake.”

(Jon IV, AGoT)
Given the probable state of Winterfell after the battle, the scene would seem premonitory.

(Raven/horse duality again: Even the ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones.)

The Winterfell Huis Clos